“There was nothing extraordinary about my mum and dad, nothing dramatic,” says Raymond Briggs during the brief live-action prologue to “Ethel & Ernest.” Truer words were never said, even if they’re among very few words not directly taken from the graphic-novel source in Roger Mainwood’s scrupulously faithful adaptation of that slender 1998 tome. This animated feature celebrates the kind of very ordinary, mostly happy shared marital life that “Up!” memorably encapsulated in its first few minutes before moving on to the more typical movie business of fantasy and adventure.
The lack of conflict proves more conspicuous over the course of 95 screen minutes than it did over 103 pages one might easily whisk through in one-quarter that time. Still, there’s considerable nostalgic charm to the low-key tale, particularly for British audiences to whom Briggs (best known internationally for the 1978 children’s picture book “The Snowman”) is a beloved institution. In the U.S., the toon is getting a very limited theatrical release by Dada Films, opening Dec. 15.
The couple identified in the title meet in 1928 London, when Ernest Briggs (voiced by Jim Broadbent) begins tipping his hat to a lady’s maid in the window of a posh residence on his way to work. Soon he and the five-years-older Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) are newlyweds ensconced in a roomy if run-down South London home whose mortgage (a grand total of 850 pounds) they worry whether they can float. But he’s handy and she’s thrifty; improvements are made slowly but surely. A little too slow for comfort is the arrival of a first and only child, when Ethel is 38; they’re told not to risk having another. Raymond proves a fair enough vessel for their modest hopes, as he wins a scholarship to a superior grammar school, later (to their initial distress) transferring to art school.
Content sticking with his humble delivery milkman’s job, Ernest is a Cockney cut-up who’s proudly pro-Labour. Ethel is vaguely Conservative, if only because prior domestic service instilled in her a slight snobbish preference for whatever’s “gentlemanly” and disdain for the “common.” She shrinks in alarm from the very thought that they’re “working-class.” He embraces novelty, while she finds change suspicious, embracing some mod cons (like electricity and refrigeration), but finding such additional innovations as a private phone, television and the Apollo moon landing a bit much.
As not much “happens” in these placid lives, veteran TV animator Mainwood lingers on the one episode where a larger event had greatest direct impact on individual citizens: World War II, whose battles abroad are represented by a brief impressionistic montage set to a Churchill speech. On the home front, Raymond is sent to the country for safety as most city children were, while dad industriously contributed to Blitz safety measures and mum found it all a great inconvenience.
After VE Day, things speed up a great deal, with a fashionably long-haired (to ma’s horror) Junior fast reaching independent adulthood. The book’s poignantly simple portrayal of death from old age — the inseparable couple succumb in quick succession — is very deftly handled here.
Mainwood’s fidelity to Briggs’ illustrative aesthetic is welcome, as it maintains a homey, appropriately somewhat retro air redolent of pencil sketches and pastels. Hewing to the book’s sparse text is a little less ideal. With an entire feature’s length to fill, there’s no great virtue in keeping some conspicuous blanks unfilled. Why do we learn almost nothing about the protagonists’ own family backgrounds? It’s admirable that the film avoids melodrama as neatly as it does excess sentimentality, but irksome that the rare instances of organic narrative conflict (when juvenile Raymond is collared by the police for petty theft, or the later revelation of his fiancée’s schizophrenia) get introduced only to go entirely unexplained and unexplored. A little added depth would hardly have unsettled “Ethel & Ernest’s” cameo-like portrait, and it would’ve helped ballast an enterprise that at times feels too slight in this medium.
Nevertheless, the care and affection with which Mainwood and his collaborators (notably animation director Peter Dodd and art director Robin Shaw) adapt already endearing material carries the day. Carl Davis contributes an original score with an aptly cheery-bye, Hail Britannia flavor, and numerous golden oldies (“The Lambeth Walk,” et al.) soundtracked and/or sung by high-spirited Ernest further heighten the nostalgia value. (There’s more commercial appeal than matching ambiance in the closing-credits song Sir Paul McCarthy contributes.) The voice characterizations are spot-on (Luke Treadaway plays the adult Raymond), if hardly very demanding of such talents as Broadbent and Blethyn.
Briggs fans should certainly be pleased; “Ethel & Ernest” will make a fine, gentle double-bill with the half-hour 1982 British TV animation of “The Snowman,” a holiday broadcast perennial.